Milk by Rachael McGill

Rachael McGill was born in the Shetland Islands. She lives with one foot in Britain, the other in Lisbon. She’s a playwright and literary translator and has recently finished her first novel. Her play The Lemon Princess is published by Oberon. Short fiction has been published in Shoe Fly Baby (Bloomsbury), Shorts 5 (Polygon), New Writing Scotland 35 (ASLS), The Frogmore Papers, Stories for Homes and online.



Rachael McGill


Monday morning was damp but not cold, with a low mist in the air so the cows were smelling more than seeing each other. The damp gave the grass a good flavour. They went down from the field at five twenty five and waited in order in the yard for the farmer’s wife to come out for the milking. Olive was near the front with Lily and Katie 3. Behind them, Angela and Annie nudged each other irritably. Clara was restless too: she was in pain with the milk fever and she hated the injection she knew she was going to get.

The one-eared black cat came out and walked along the bottom of the fence, curling around every post. The cows at the front put their heads down and sniffed at her. The cat jumped on to the top of the gate and rubbed against their faces. They licked her.  They were interested in the cat.

The silly brown dog was out next. They were less interested in the dog: it moved too fast to be investigated. They kept going forward though, because they knew the farmer’s wife would be right behind. The dog ran from the house to the yard and back again five times. On the sixth, the farmer’s wife was with him, tutting a bit at the mist, ignoring the dog who was circling round her, watching her face for clues.

The farmer’s wife opened the gate, leaving the dog on the other side, and talked to the cows. She asked how Clara was and told Angela and Annie to stop squabbling. She went into the milking parlour and the cows all moved round to the door to wait for her to open it. Madge, Lily, Katie 3 and Olive always went in first for the milking because they were the oldest. It meant they had their udders emptied first and spent less time waiting around in the yard, but at the beginning the metal was cold. The younger cows got it when it was warm.

Katie 3 always went to the far left hand stall: that was the only one she liked. The other three weren’t fussy. Olive didn’t really like being in the stall nearest to the milking machine because of the noise. On the other hand, when the machine went wrong, which it often did, this was the best position to watch what happened.


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Olive was only half way through her cow-cake when the machine whined to a halt. The farmer’s wife shouted ‘Kerry! Kerry!’ but the daughter didn’t appear as quickly as usual. Most days she was around somewhere, collecting the eggs, letting the ducks out.  Olive hadn’t heard the ducks quacking their morning song:  they were still in bed.

The farmer’s wife never left the cows unattended in the milking parlour. She had to lean out of the door to hurry her daughter up. That made her angry. She upset Lily by telling her to make her cake last and not be so greedy. A pointless thing to say to Lily, who took eating very seriously.

The daughter watched the cows while the farmer’s wife fiddled with the machine, making clanking noises. The daughter was in jeans and wellies but on top she was still wearing her nightdress. Her mother noticed. The farmer’s wife noticed everything.  She knew when the cows were pregnant before they did.

‘I’ve got an exam today, Mum,’ the daughter moaned.

‘All the more reason for you to be out of bed on time,’ said her mother, walloping the machine back to life.

‘And well you might stare at her Olive,’ she said as she came back to Olive’s stall.  ‘She’s a sight isn’t she?’

‘Mum!’ wailed the daughter.  ‘Stop talking to the cows.  Don’t you care if I’ve got an exam?’

Olive breathed cake-breath on the farmer’s wife’s hair. The farmer’s wife looked up and breathed back at her. She would never stop talking to the cows. She would stop talking to her whining daughter before she stopped talking to her cows.

Back in the field later the mist eased and there was a bit of sun. Olive sat by the fence with Clara for a while. The injections made Clara drowsy.  Then she stretched her legs up at the top of the field where there were still a few dandelions.

At after school time, it wasn’t the daughter who came striding behind the silly brown dog up past them to the top field, but the farmer’s wife. The cows ran over, pleased to see her. She stopped for a while to give them dandelions from the verge, but then she went to give the dog his exercise and check on the sheep. It was good to see the wife in the afternoon instead of the daughter. Olive thought it must be because of the exam.


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They got to the yard for second milking at five twenty five pm. Madge and Katie 3 hesitated straight away. Something wasn’t the same. They could hear the gentle mooing of the calves calling for their dinner. They stopped before they got to the gate. Some of the others behind collided into each other. Lily turned round as if she wanted to go back, but couldn’t get past Jane 4, who was fixed to the ground with the shock.

The cows knew in a way that their calves were there, just on the other side of the gate from the yard and the milking parlour, but the calves were quiet unless they were being fed, and the cows were quiet while they were milked. Only the bull, who was just called the Bull, bellowed at all sorts of times, for his own reasons. So it wasn’t until they heard their voices that the cows remembered about their calves. It made them feel strange. The farmer’s wife knew this. She was screaming at the daughter for still being in the middle of feeding the calves at five twenty five pm.

The cows were torn between their desire to see what was happening with the wife and the daughter and their fear of the confusion they might feel if they saw their calves. Some looked over the gate and some didn’t. Olive looked. She’d deal with whatever came up over her cake in the milking stall.

‘They’re here now!  What do you think you’re doing Kerry?’ the wife was shouting.

The daughter was feeding the smallest calf from a bucket. The calf started at the wife’s shouts.

The daughter said ‘Leave me alone Mum,’ through tears.

The bigger calves had just been fed and were playful, butting and sucking each other in case they could find more milk.

The daughter suddenly dropped the half-finished bucket into the calf’s stall and turned away. The frightened calf drank very fast in case the milk got taken away just as suddenly. 

The cat jumped down lightly from the gate to see if she could join in.



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The daughter turned her head to the side and was sick into the mud and onto her wellies.

The dog came over to check the wellies. The cat helped the calf get the last drops of milk out of the bucket.

The farmer’s wife grabbed her daughter by the shoulders and flung her against the gate of one of the stalls.

The gate rattled. The playful calves reversed to the back of the stall, eyes wide, heads low.

The farmer’s wife, the daughter, the calves and the cows were shocked by the violence of the push.  The daughter was only light. The farmer’s wife was used to pushing cows.

The dog cleared up the sick.

‘Who is he?’ the farmer’s wife growled.  ‘Kerry, who is he?’

The farmer’s wife noticed everything.

The Bull bellowed. The daughter ran out of the yard, sliding on the mud, followed by the dog, who had his eye on her wellies.

‘I want to know who he is and I want a wedding ring on your finger!’ shouted the wife at her daughter’s back.

She took the bucket away from the calf, rinsed it and came over to the cows to start the milking.

The farmer’s wife had a wedding ring on her finger.  It was cold and hard. The cows liked to lick it.

From the other side of the gate the daughter yelled ‘I’m not telling you and I’m not marrying him!’ She ran to the house.

Olive was surprised to find that all the calves looked the same. She wasn’t sure anymore which one was hers.

They got into their stalls in the milking parlour. Olive could hear very loud music coming all the way from the house. Then the milking machine drowned it out.

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Tuesday was mistier and wetter.  This time, when the machine went wrong, the farmer’s wife didn’t shout for Kerry. She just went and fixed it, so the milking took longer.

Olive ate her cake and the farmer’s wife rested her head against Olive’s side and made it wet. It was a while before Olive realised the farmer’s wife was crying: her tears were so cold, nothing like as warm as a cow’s tears.

At second milking, some of the cows were irritable. The sun hadn’t come out – a low mist still hung silently over the farm – and that day it had been Lily’s turn to go to the Bull and Clara had been checked by the vet. The younger cows felt unsettled when any of the herd was missing. The farmer’s wife kept trying to get them to move faster. Though she knew Lily was annoyed and hungrier than usual because of going to the Bull, she pretended she didn’t and scolded her.

Going back up to the field, Olive noticed the ducks hadn’t been put to bed. They’d known it was time and gone by themselves. They were quacking softly in the far corner of their hut, with the door still open, swinging in the wind. 

On Wednesday a fresh breeze blew the mist away and ruffled the cat’s fur as she stood on the gate. There was no sign of the daughter, but the milking machine kept going all by itself and the ducks were up. The farmer’s wife was about ten minutes late for the milking. She didn’t talk much. The dog was not in the yard. He lay at the back door of the house with one paw bent under and his head on the ground. Only the cat was happy.

The farmer’s wife seemed to have forgotten about Clara’s injection.  This was fine with Clara. She was about to go back to the field, but Madge and Olive made her wait behind in the yard so the farmer’s wife remembered.

Thursday was clearer and windier still. All the dandelions were finished. There was still no daughter and no dog. The milking machine worked again, but after the milking the farmer’s wife announced Annie was going to the Bull. The cows were worried, especially Annie. Annie never went to the Bull. They all stood still in protest, but the farmer’s wife wouldn’t look them in the eye. Annie swung her head at the cat, knocking her off the top of the gate so she landed near the farmer’s wife’s feet. Still the farmer’s wife ignored her. She’d never forgotten who went to the Bull and who didn’t. Annie didn’t go to the Bull because she was one of his daughters.


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After milking on Friday they knew they had to stay in the yard because they heard the AI man’s van. The AI man never talked to them while doing his work, but the farmer’s wife did. Her attention made up for his neglect. She talked in a low soothing voice, telling them their own life stories. She remembered more than they did, all the happy and sad things that had ever happened.

Today she was talking to the AI man, not to them, but looking at the clouds over the top field, not at him. When Jane 2, Jane 4, Polly, Angela and Bridget had been done she said to him ‘don’t do Madge and don’t do Olive.’

‘It’s time to –’  the AI man protested. He jabbed his finger at the farmer’s wife’s notebook. He bent down to prepare his syringes.

‘Do you know who my daughter’s been sleeping with?’ asked the farmer’s wife.

The AI man stopped with a syringe half full of best bull’s semen and just stared.

‘Madge and Olive have been pregnant for the last three years,’ said the farmer’s wife.  ‘Maybe they want a rest.’

The AI man looked down at his syringes.

‘Have you seen my daughter?’ the farmer’s wife asked.

The AI man fiddled with the syringes. The cat nudged his right arm with her head. He batted her away. 

‘I don’t know where she is,’ the farmer’s wife said.

The AI man practically ran back to his little blue van full of best bull’s semen.

At second milking, the farmer’s wife took the first six cows into the second yard and left them there. The Bull bellowed. They ignored him, didn’t look at him and didn’t look at the calves in their stalls, played with the cat on the ground, tapping her gently between them. The farmer’s wife put Angela, Annie, Jane 2 and Alice into the milking parlour and set the machine going. She left them and came back to the cows in the yard. She got the calves out of their stalls and put two calves on each cow to suck, trying the ones that weren’t keen on another cow until they’d all settled. Then she went back to the milking parlour. 

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The cat went with her, then came back and jumped up on the Bull’s wall and rubbed against his big head. Then she wove her way between the cows and calves in the yard.  She didn’t know which was more exciting.

Katie 3 had her own twin calves. Neither of the calves sucking Olive was her daughter, but Olive didn’t mind. The sensation of calves suckling was something pleasant she’d forgotten.

On Saturday morning, the sun was bright even at five twenty five am. It was going to be a hot day. Olive was already thirsty when they got down to the yard. It was quiet:  the ducks were still asleep, there was no sign of the cat, even the Bull was silent. The cows waited. Katie 3 thought about her calves. She mooed gently over the fence in case they knew it was her, but they were sleeping too.

Clara was feeling much better. She thought this must be the last day she would have to have the injection.

The cows waited until six am. The farmer’s wife didn’t come. They could just make out the sound of the ducks quacking inside their hut.

Olive wondered where the cat could be.

At six thirty am, the Bull bellowed continuously for a good five minutes. The cows joined in. Still no one came.

At six forty five am, because that was where they normally were at that time, the cows went back to the field.

They felt a surprisingly hot sun on their backs, but it was hard to forget their swollen udders. They drank water from the trough and ate grass. Olive thought about a lot of different things. Lily thought about cow-cake.